Compression shorts are not all created equal. Some are high-end, highly-technical athletic garments designed for athletes. Others are essentially underwear that can be had for around $10. They might not even be comparable, although they are both labeled as “compression shorts”. A big part of knowing exactly which are for you is to determine your uses and goals of buying the shorts: If you simply want comfy underwear, that is one thing. If you are looking for compression shorts that will aid in recovery from strenuous exercise, then you are looking at an entirely different garment at a more expensive price.
So, with the term “compression shorts” meaning a few different things, which ones are right for you?
In order to help make sense of this market, we are going to describe for you the four types of compression shorts, and go out on a limb and name what we feel is the best product for each of the four categories. Your feedback is welcome – if you think we should look at other makes and models that you have personally tried and like, we would love to hear from you.
Top Category: High-End Athletic Compression Shorts.
The high-end athletic compression shorts have all of the features of a good set of compression tights, only they are not as long and do not support the calf area. They are often made by the same makers as our favorite compression socks, tights, and shirts. When you look at the compression applied to the quads and hamstrings, these are shorts designed for avid athletes who need the shorts for their workouts or recovery. They are not cheap, often going for $80 or more, but they offer the benefits of compression wear that you will not find in the lesser shorts. These shorts feature high compression to assist in power and recovery, perfect seams, and an attractive look that can be worn as an outer-garment. In addition to the build and look, a high-end compression shorts will have the best stitching which is virtually unnoticeable, and leg grips that strike the perfect balance between firmness and comfort. On the mmhg scale, which is the standard way of measuring any compression garment, these will be at the top of the range. Studies suggest that such compression will lower blood lactate levels which reduces recover time. When you see NFL players or olympians warming up in compression shorts, they are using this type of garment. These are also common in basketball circles as basketball compression shorts have become much more common.
Our favorite: 2XU Elite Compression Short for around $89. We continue to be impressed by the compression gear that 2XU designs, and this particular short has been a mainstay on the market. Honorable mention goes to the Endurance Generator Shorts by CW-X, although the price tag of $120 probably gives the 2XU’s our overall edge.
Category 2: Mid-Range Athletic Compression Shorts.
The usual compression gear makers focus on the high-end shorts, but there is another category of shorts that athletes might use as outerwear. These are made by more general sports gear makers such as Nike or Saucony, and are often focused on the $50 to $75 price point. They might not have the same amount of paneling, or varying degrees of thickness and tightness, in the shorts, but for the typical athlete they could perform just fine. This is where you will find all-purpose athletic compression shorts, like those used for basketball or track. Most of these shorts are going to provide better recovery abilities than not using compression shorts, and you likely will benefit from using them during certain workouts as well. While you might get better compression, fit, and looks by spending a little more, these are often the garment of choice for weekend athletes and can usually be found for reasonable prices due to the inventory/discount strategies of their manufactuers. Especially if you are using the shorts because of the comfort and support, and not necessarily looking for hard core medical or recovery benefits, these shorts are likely to be good options to have in your closet.
Our favorite: Saucony Men’s Interval 2-1 Shorts for around $50. A good all-around pair of compression shorts that will give you a taste of athletic compression gear without breaking the bank. You might not get the same level of seamless construction or compression as the high-end category, but for many it is a fair trade-off. They are going to be very good for a variety of uses. We also like the
Category 3: Higher-End Support Shorts.
When we say “support”, we really mean underwear. Many people use compression shorts as underwear during their workouts, or in some cases all the time. This type of short is a big step down from the athletic shorts, as outline in our piece on compression shorts as underwear or outerwear. You lose much of the compression function, and you also do not have a garment with the fabric to be worn as outerwear. What you do get, however, is a piece that in many cases is highly comfortable during light to heavy exercise, and can be worn instead of a jockstrap or other athletic underwear. While the performance shorts in the above two categories can be quite stiff, the support shorts are typically going to be much softer and focus on using material that is comfortable to wear all day long. In terms of mmhg, the standard measure for compression garments, the step-down from Category 2 to 3 is probably about 10 points. We would note that this category is probably the one seeing the most advancements right now, as many manufacturers are using the concepts of their higher-end shorts and building them into the support shorts.
Our favorite: Nike Pro-Core Shorts for around $40. Nike has been making these shorts for years and they produce a reliable product. They come in a few different length, so pay attention to which inseam you are getting. We like a 7 inch inseam for general use, but they go as short as 3 inches (think volleyball).
For those playing team sports, a good option in this category is UnderArmour’s Armor model (find it here) , which is meant for wear under sports gear and has room for an athletic cup. Even though the white is the standard, it comes in about 20 colors if that is what you are looking for. An excellent, reliable overall choice.
Category 4: Low-End Support Shorts.
We hate to label these low-end, as it implies that they are cheap and not of high-quality. We would never recommend anything that was low-quality, so don’t worry about that. At this price point, however, you need to pay a little more attention to construction, stitching, and fabric. Shorts at this price point are intended to be underwear either in sports situations or perhaps in everyday use. They typically go for much less money than the Category 3, but they also don’t compare in terms of compression qualities and overall duration of the stitching and flex. We think that there are some brands you should avoid, but in general we feel that brands like Under Armor do a good job at balancing the quality vs. cost equation. Our advice: Don’t buy shorts in that category for under $20 unless they are a good brand on sale.
Our favorite: Under Armor Heat Gear for Around $25. The HeatGear has been around for a long time as is incredibly popular for good reason. UA does a great job with these shorts, and in particular is effective in tailoring their Heat Gear offerings to women. UA’s Heat Gear dominates our list of best compression shorts for women. We also think that for the money, the basic shorts made by Champion are not a bad deal.
So there you have it. A categorization of compression shorts, along with our favorites in each category. Truth be told, a typical athlete’s closet might have an assortment of all of these shorts in it – it would just vary based on the activities that particular individual engages in. In general, we always recommend investing in quality gear, taking good care of it, and keeping it for a long, long time.
What is Next in Compression Shorts?
The trend we are seeing in compression shorts is an exciting one. Companies such as Tommie Copper and Zensah are entering the shorts market after having cut their teeth with compression socks and sleeves. Many lower-cost importers of compression shorts are adding to the variety and value available to consumers, although they typically are not playing in the top, high-end category, and only time will tell if they can take on an incumbent like UA. Expect that the categories of compression shorts will continue to blur, with high-end features making it down to other models and new advancements being introduced each year. Another trend we are seeing is that the makers are much more focused on providing various color and design choices than they used to be….. a far cry from the days when your choices were black or black. Overall, though, compression shorts are becoming an important part of any athletic arsenal. They are often used in conjunction with rest and ice to help address injuries in a case-by-case way, and we expect the breadth of offerings to continue.
If you are looking for more basic shorts without the compression, check out the article we did on spandex shorts. That should give you more perspective on the shorts market, something that is really evolving right now. Finally, don’t miss our pieces on cycling shorts, where we did an extensive overview of the bike shorts market. Bike shorts are not the same as compression shorts, but they are a close cousin and many of similar concepts apply when evaluating one against the other. The same goes for our our review of the best compression tights on the market, something that we put significant time into each year as we test actual tights that we have received. If you like using compression shorts, it is likely that you will equally enjoy the feel and fit of a good pair of compression tights.
We are also intrigued by the market for compression sleeves, allowing some spot-coverage and circulation, for calves and elbows, for example. Expect more pieces from us on those topics soon.